Former U.S. Ambassador to the U,N. Bill Richardson has succeeded in gaining freedom for Aye Mo, a former employee, as well as Danny Fenster, a reporter and U.S. citizen; both were jailed on spurious charges by Burma’s military. Richardson’s visit to Burma was followed by Japan’s Special Envoy for National Reconciliation Yohei Sasakawa. While I applaud the release of the two individuals and welcome an announcement that badly-needed Covid-19 vaccine will finally make its way to ethnic-controlled areas, it’s critical to understand the junta’s intentions: This sudden “charm offensive” in no way indicates a change away from vicious brutality, murder and terror. It does represent a calculated attempt to wear down the international community and worm its way back from pariah status.
According to reports, Sasakawa discussed among other topics economic development and, in a meeting with the junta’s health minister, how Japan can assist in providing Covid-19 vaccine and humanitarian assistance to the junta. One only has to watch the horrific video of three medical workers pulled from their ambulance and beaten by police to understand the depths of depravity that is the soul and spirit of this junta. Today, doctors and health-care professionals in Myanmar wear, literally, targets on their backs.
According to best estimates, over 400 doctors and 180 nurses have outstanding arrest warrants for supporting Myanmar’s democratic uprising and treating demonstrators; this includes me. More than 150 doctors have been arrested, 32 wounded and 12 murdered by the regime.
The WHO reports that Myanmar is now the most dangerous place in the world for healthcare workers accounting for nearly 40% of all worldwide attacks against medical professionals. Myanmar Doctors for Human Rights released a report stating: “Denial of access to medical care, treatment and medicines has been used by the military as a weapon of war, compounded by direct attacks on medical personnel.” The report also documents the ongoing use of torture against healthcare workers. Was this a part of Sasakawa’s discussions with junta officials?
The coordinated junta assault against the healthcare system, fragile and broken during the best of times, has seen at least 51 hospitals and healthcare facilities occupied by the regime according to a UN country team report. Insecurity Insight, documented cases of tear gas being fired inside clinics with trapped healthcare workers and patients. Emergency workers are being deliberately targeted by junta forces firing live rounds. A report by two Myanmar health-care organizations documented the torture of healthcare workers. All these acts are designed to terrorize, maim and kill.
Layer over this coordinated assault on healthcare is Covid-19 and the junta’s use of it in attacking the opposition. The junta has restricted Covid-19 vaccine, treatment, and life-saving oxygen from people fighting to stay alive. One doctor, speaking anonymously, stated in a report that four of his colleagues from “Medical Group, Mandalay,” had been arrested for providing medical care; three others in Yangon were arrested after soldiers posed as Covid-19 patients needing treatment. The list goes on.
The junta has provided medical care, PPE, oxygen and vaccine to the military creating a protective bubble around it and its enablers.
Many have described the junta’s efforts at addressing the Covid-19 epidemic that continues to tear through Myanmar as “mismanagement.” It is not. It is a carefully thought-out plan to use this pandemic as a weapon to murder the democratic opposition.
According to reports, the Covid-19 per-capita death rate in Myanmar surpassed Indonesia and Malaysia and is now the worst in Southeast Asia.
UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews has been both prescient and one of the few to raise an alarm over what is happening. His calls for an emergency contact group and a halt in the violence to address Covid-19 are urgent first steps for the international community.
The junta is an existential national-security threat to the region. Covid-19 respects no boundaries or borders. The country is literally a petri dish where the next variant of this virus could very well emerge.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with its “non-interference in members’ internal affairs” founding principle, is not designed to handle emergencies such as Myanmar. The only way forward is for the U.S. to lead a coalition of like-minded countries to marshal support and force action. It was careful, quiet U.S. diplomacy that secured the imminent delivery of Covid-19 vaccine by COVAX, the world’s vaccine distributor to at-risk individuals facing humanitarian emergencies. It will take more U.S,-led diplomacy for moving vaccine and humanitarian assistance into Myanmar’s junta-controlled areas through non-political third parties.
Those engaging with the junta must be clear-eyed. There is no “softening” in this group of criminals. In 2016, the world watched in horror as this same military leadership began a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya ethnic group in western Myanmar and it is now continuing its murderous campaign against the people.
Danny Fenster and Aye Moe are released, vaccine is starting to trickle in, but more than 54 million people remain vulnerable and jailed in a living hell. Stopping the violence and building peace and a true democracy must be grounded in the reality of the junta’s brutality and the Myanmar people’s unwavering desire to be free.
*Dr. Khin Maung Lwin is the former rector, University of Mandalay, School of Medicine. He is working in Burma to support the Civil Disobedience Movement and wanted by the Myanmar junta for his political activities.